There's little doubt that Mustafa Ali's meteoric transformation over the past two years from high-flyer on 205 Live to WWE championship contender on SmackDown Live has been one of the most compelling -- if not unlikely -- in all of pro wrestling. Billed at 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds with the move set of a traditional cruiserweight, it has been nothing short of refreshing to see how quickly the 32-year-old Ali has been elevated since his SmackDown debut in December and how serious (and legitimate) his character has been presented. Even in 2019, this has been a bit of a pleasant surprise.
But Ali's feel-good story which has played out on WWE television over the last four months may not even hold a candle to the real-life journey that the man behind the character, born Adeel Alam, has walked out both behind the scenes in WWE and years before he ever achieved his dream.
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A native of Chicago, Ali was born the son of a Pakastani father and an Indian mother. He's also a practicing Muslim. What that has typically meant throughout history for aspiring wrestlers like Ali was that to get hired and gain attention, one must be a villain (think Muhammad Hassan or the Iron Shiek) who plays up the negative stereotypes that often surround how South Asian and Middle Eastern people are viewed in the United States.
It's a reality that Ali, who started on the independent scene at age 16, knows too well.
"I'm a kid who is trying to chase his dream, and the first decision I have to make is do I cave in to these preconceived notions about what a guy that looks like me and has a name like mine is supposed to be in the world of pro wrestling," Ali told CBS Sports' "State of Combat" podcast on Monday. "It was a very weird time for me because I was in high school when 9/11 happened and I immediately felt the disconnect that I'm not one of us. I was born and raised in Chicago but somehow felt very alienated."
Ali gave a first-person account of his wrestling backstory this week on the digital show "The Secret Life of Muslims." In the season 2 premiere of the Emmy and Peabody Award-nominated docu-series by Gizmodo Media Group, Ali talked about how the ups and downs of the early incarnations of his wrestling character led him to a crossroads.
Originally billed as Prince Mustafa Ali, he was a typical foreigner heel who hailed from Saudi Arabia. But he experienced an epiphany of sorts while walking to the ring one day wearing a headdress. A young boy, probably 6 years old, in the front row jumped up and put his hands up in Ali's face as to call him on to fight.
"I remember looking into this kid's eyes and I remember seeing hate," Ali said. "And right then and there it hit me. I just taught this kid to hate people who look like me."
Shaken by the experience, Ali began to wrestle in a mask and presented himself as a luchador of Hispanic descent, which better fit his move set. Yet it began to eat at him: Why he couldn't just be Mustafa Ali, without the stereotypic gimmicks of wearing things on his head or speaking in Arabic?
While conjuring up what a babyface version of himself might look and feel like, Ali noticed just how rare this idea had become across American pop culture.
"I think it's something much bigger than just pro wrestling and the industry I work in. It's across all media," Ali said. "You look at Hollywood movies, there's not the Muslim hero or the guy who looks like me and has a name like mine who is portrayed in a positive manner or in a leading role. So growing up, I didn't have a role model that looks like me."
Ali's change to a more positive character slowly began to build momentum on the independent scene. But it wasn't until a fan of Southeast Asian descent approached him after a show that Ali realized the full gravity of what he had done.
"He said, 'It's pretty cool that I have heroes and can look up to but there's something about it just being easier to look up to someone when they look just like you,"" Ali said. "I don't know why that really resonated with me, but I never thought about myself as being somebody in this position. I realized I'm that hero I didn't have as a kid to somebody else and it's very, very cool."
From there, Ali's career took off in almost inconceivable ways. He was an alternate on the 2016 WWE Cruiserweight Classic roster who only got an opportunity because of injury. Yet despite being given just five minutes to work in a first-round loss to Lince Dorado, Ali performed arguably the most memorable spot of the tournament when he landed a spectacular Spanish Fly off the top rope at a time when the move was more or less unheard of in WWE.
Ali's underdog story continued when he joined 205 Live as an enhancement talent to put over bigger names. But because the show was filmed in the same arena and on the same day as SmackDown Live, he began to gain the attention of producers with how hard he worked and the various styles of opponents he complemented. In a bit of a do-it-yourself scenario, he also relentlessly told producers that he could talk as good as he can wrestle, and it wasn't until he shot his own gritty outdoor promos and brought it to the table by posting on his social media that WWE began to take notice.
"Sometimes you have to create your own chance," Ali said. "These promos I was filming, I shot them and had them filmed in a very specific way to make them look different than everybody else. No one was doing these stylized vignettes, which is what we call them now, but me. We shot them the wee hours of the morning. If I wanted to talk about rising to your feet again, we made sure to film it at 5 a.m. with the sun coming up. When they see that dedication and see that you are being so intricate about all the small details, it resonates."
Ali's work soon caught the attention of Daniel Bryan, who (although Ali believes Bryan won't admit it publicly) went to bat for him with WWE management regarding joining the main roster. Yet even after getting his big break, Ali was faced once more with the challenge of how his character was presented when he met with SmackDown producer Brian "Road Dogg" James.
"When I first came on to 205 Live, I was cast as a bad guy and [James] and I had a serious discussion about why do I have to be a bad guy?" Ali said. "Why can't I be the first openly Muslim guy with a Muslim name, who looks like a Muslim? Why can't I be a good guy? I have this amazing move set, why are we going to throw this away?
"It was Brian who took this leap of faith and said, 'We are going to try.' I have to thank 'Road Dogg' so much."
Ali said he learned quickly that to get the WWE universe to care about him, his character needs to be more about flashy moves and needs to have substance. In a remarkably short period of time, he was able to win over legions of fans and those in power at WWE to get to where he is this week, just days removed from a WWE championship match at the Fastlane pay-per-view less than 30 days out from WrestleMania.
"I'm kind of getting goose bumps right now realizing where I'm at right now. I wouldn't have believed this, not even years ago, but months ago that this would happen," Ali said. "I've always had faith in my ring ability, but sometimes it's how you are perceived and how good you are doesn't matter. It's kind of like this refreshing, deep and philosophic take that hard work still pays off. This is such a crazy ride. I just competed for the WWE championship on the pay-per-view.
"There is plenty of misconceptions and opinions out there. What I want to do is strip away all the notions and all the preconceived ideas. I want people to know there is no difference between you and I. We are all the same and we all bleed the same blood. We all have the same soul and same organs. My message to everyone is that we truly are one and the minute you see me as the person, not just as the Muslim -- when you see me as Adeel Alam and not just the character on TV -- when you see past all of that, we are all the same and we are all just one. That's my message, that's my goal and that's my motto."